‘Sangre de Mi Sangre’ Director Christopher Zalla on Making New York Scary

christopher zalla
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New York filmmaker Christopher Zalla just made his striking debut with the new film Sangre de Mi Sangre — a harrowing, elemental story of two illegal Mexican immigrants who try to find their feet in Brooklyn. The riveting film (which made big waves at Sundance under the title Padre Nuestro) plays at the IFC Center through the end of the month. Vulture spoke with Zalla about the curse of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the perils of making a modern immigration noir.

Plus: See an exclusive clip from Sangre de mi Sangre here!

New York looks very frightening and alien in the film — it reminded us of how intimidating the city was when we first moved here.
Rather than feeling like "Let’s just embrace realism," we wanted to characterize this world a little bit. That’s what I loved about film noir — that melding of character and setting, of characterizing the setting.

Even Park Slope looks intense.
You know, when I lived in Bolivia we had a car that was smuggled in from Brazil. When I was 8 years old, every time we’d drive in from the ranch into town, we’d get chased by the army — guys with machine guns! They were just looking for a little bribe, and for the adults it was no big deal. But to me, age 8, I was utterly terrified and I developed a horrible, horrible fear of cities.

So you moved here and went to film school at Columbia.
You know, I went to high school outside of Cincinnati and I was terrified of that big city. Cincinnati, of all places. And then I moved to New York. So for me, the city as antagonist, as obstacle, was very important.

How did your actors pick that up?
The reason I cast the kids in Mexico — one reason — was to get two kids who’d never had any contact with the city and then just drop them in and get that oh-God energy.

Your film is a tense thriller, but there’s a lot else going on. We’re streaming the scene in which Pedro arrives at a very dark, ominous Grand Army Plaza — and it’s a hysterical little moment.
One of the reasons I made the movie was to play with shifting moral paradigms, with light and dark, shifting good and bad. One of my favorite moments at Sundance was to watch a husband and wife walk out, one screaming to the other, “You don’t get it at all!” At Sundance I had my own reading, and I got belligerent and argued with people. I think people thought I was kind of a cocky bastard. So it took me a while to let go and let people’s responses be legitimate and allow it to become this conversation.

And then you won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
We went from being the little engine that could to being the established guy on the pedestal. At Sundance, I was sure we were going to sell the movie. I was sure we were going to sell it. I never thought we’d win an award. And then we won the Grand Jury Prize and didn’t sell it. I really wish it had worked the other way: If we’d sold it and I wouldn’t care about the prize.

Did distributors tell you the standard stuff? It’s foreign-language — let’s make it an English movie starring Diego Luna?
Oh yeah. The three strikes are very clearly there: foreign language, no-name actors, and it’s dark. Which I never knew was a strike: I love dark movies. But somebody’s decided that people don’t want to see these things. And the window has collapsed so much and there’s just not as much time for word of mouth. But the responses at screenings have been crazily good.

People love to complain about Sundance — and especially Sundance films.
Yeah, if you’re going to make a film about immigrants, they expect you to make it in an indie way. At least nobody’s indifferent; they love it or hate it. We’ve pressed some kind of button. Some reviews say the problem is that the film works too well. The fact that it’s a thriller or slick has come up several times — like it’s problematic. Like an indie film can’t have a tight plot or look great. When we were shooting in these conditions on this low budget, we would never have thought people would say this is too slick.

And you’re more prone to get political critiques.
It’s mostly unfortunate because the movie has already played really well in Mexico, where it was really received well by the people, by the critics there. It’s unfortunate to see critics here saying our characters are stereotypical, when Mexicans have embraced it as their own. —Logan Hill